Each day, after my “treatment,” I have taken one stone from the grounds. I wait until after I have received my daily dose of radioactive zaps and zings, and exit the building wearing my own clothing and once again in my own skin. I walk slowly to my car taking note of the sky, the trees, the play of light and shadow which has changed since I entered the building some 20 or 30 minutes ago, these are my own place markers for reality. Then I focus on the ground. There are many stones in the landscaping of The Cancer Center. They are laid out as an abstract river flowing against nature along the perimeters of the pathways. I chose each stone with considerable criteria. It must not be too large, nor too small; grey, brown, reddish, but not black or white. Broken is okay, chipped is okay, although most are roundish. When I first began picking them up I tried to do it in secrecy, not wanting anyone to notice me standing and staring at the ground in silence while waiting for the right stone to make itself known to my outstretched hand. Besides the possible embarrassment of looking slightly crazy, there may be rules against stone pilfering. This last week I have abandoned my secrecy in stone picking, deciding to openly snitch my stone of the day.
For the last three months I have allowed only five people to know of the blight that has invaded my body. Last week I included two others with my secret information and suddenly realized that keeping my disease secret may have cheated those that know me from participating in a way that would have been important to them. Breast cancer is a conerstone of fear for all women, but for me, along with the fear was shame that I had failed in some very basic physical sense and I needed to keep that a secret. I am a private person, fiercely independent, secretive with personal information. I do not come gracefully to speaking of myself, particularly when this kind of sharing involves some perceived measure of confession. I have come to accept (but maybe not quite believe) that this havoc on my body is not my punishment for being an imperfect human being.
My reactions have been predictable; fear, sadness, guilt, anger, fear, hope…my weeks of anger most surprising. Anger is messy and “un-nice.” We (women) have been taught from our babyhood to be “nice.” Like anger, cancer is messy and it is never nice. It is demeaning, demanding, devastating. Some say being ill is a humbling experience, however, I fight on daily to retain my dignity and privacy and my arrogant belief that it is not humbling to have my breasts exposed seemingly casually to strangers (however long their medical degrees) with my backside, or my frontside on view in scant gowns made for the width of a child’s body, while my very persona balances between what I know and believe and the greater chasm of the unknown. Yet I am often in a state of grace – filled with gratitude – hope filling my chest around the stones as I breathe through yet another gifted day.